I was writing a biography and my teacher (who is not an English teacher, he is a math teacher) made several marks on my paper for my use of "would". For example, I wrote,

"He would publish his first mathematical paper at the age of eighteen."

My teacher said I should have used published instead of would publish. He also said in class that since it is a biography that takes place in the past that this wasn't the correct use of past tense. I don't think he is right and I feel that this issue is more a stylistic difference. However, I am unsure as well so any help would be appreciated. I will put some more example below too.

  1. me-> "One year later he went on to earn his Ph.D..."
    him-> should have been earned and I should've got rid of went on to

  2. me-> "He would be associated with the project until 1955."
    him-> should have been was and not would be

  3. me-> "Von Neumann would go on to write, "[boring qoute]"
    him-> should have been went and not would go

  4. me-> "Between 1927-1930 Von Neumann would teach Mathematics at University of Berlin."
    him-> should have been taught and not would teach

  • 1
    OK sorry, this is my first post I will try to fix it.
    – Hank Manks
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 21:31
  • @RaceYouAnytime can actually close it if you want I was just looking for some quick reassurance. Thanks again for the idea I will find some sources to give back to him
    – Hank Manks
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 21:33
  • I don't think this is a bad question. I would wait for more feedback from other users who more well-versed in grammaticality. The comment about what is on-topic and off-topic is pretty boilerplate, so don't take it personally. Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 21:38
  • 1
    @RaceYouAnytime alright cool I just found this odd and never encounter a teacher who was persistent on this (He "corrected" my paper 20 times where I use this). Whenever I was looking stuff up it was hard to find specific material on would in the past tense not being correct. I already found a few sources to show him tomorrow so I think ill be good getting some points back
    – Hank Manks
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 21:44
  • 1
    Try Google NGram "would go on to" and "would later *'--the use of would (future in the past?) reflects the perspective of the author at the time, e.g., "He pitched a no-hitter; he would go on to win the World Series . . ." But, writing as of "now", He won the World Series. At the time he won the World Series, he had already pitched a no-hitter . . .Very tricky stuff. U.S. book editors tend to want to simplify to simple past.
    – Xanne
    Commented Nov 27, 2017 at 23:26

4 Answers 4


You could write it the way you did as long as it is that tense throughout the biography. You are writing it in a style and tense that indicates you are telling events from a standpoint that you know are going to happen before they do, which is fine. In fact, it is good storytelling. The way your teacher prefers to write it is as if it is written from a factual stand point where it already happened, in a perhaps sequential order telling what happened first, then what happened next which makes sense also. So yes, in a way it is only a stylistic difference. As long as you choose one tense and stick with it throughout your biography, it is grammatically correct and makes sense.


You were right in your "would" grammar, but only providing you had previously established a feeling of some past scene, leading from which "would" served as the descriptor of a future event. (Example: Yesterday's movie was about a young guy who had lost his wife, and he then "would" want to re-marry some day, of course...)

Personally, I can understand your teacher, who just wanted a step-by-step account of past events. Excessive use of one type of construction/tense is not advisable, and is OK occasionally in order that your piece be more interesting. (Example: he did this, took that, finished something else but still "would" not go out).


The "would" past tense is correct only when describing events in the past, you want to BRIEFLY mention something that was also in the past, but happened later than the main events in the past you are describing. Sportscasters in the U.S. began using the "would" past tense all the time, and it got picked up by the general public for reasons I don't understand. Your teacher was right to correct you. The example above about the World Series is a correct use of the "would" past tense.


Your teacher is right. You're wrong. 'Would' is incorrect when describing events that took place in the past. It describes intent, not action that took place. It's passive writing style, which will get you low marks in advanced writing courses and in history. Read Strunk's The Elements of Style. Eliminate needless words that add nothing to your message. It's not, "You would go on to write your paper," or "your teacher went on to edit it." It's, "You wrote the paper," and "your teacher edited it."

I realize the need to load up the paper in order to achieve the assigned word count, but you do that by providing the reader with the necessary information, not with filler words that convey nothing of value. Hacker's Rules for Writers is another good source for tips on how to write more effectively.

Remember: in formal writing it pays to be concise, precise, informative, and especially unambiguous. Your teacher has been well taught, and is trying to teach you well. Take heed.

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